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Upstairs, in a house that does triple duty as Modern Radio's office and warehouse, and Tom Loftus's home, Loftus is posing for a photo with a guitar he rarely plays. "You should hold it upside down, like you have no idea what you're doing," offers his label partner, Peter Mielech, who joined in 2005. Loftus, who began Modern Radio in 1999 with the release of the Misfires' Dead End Expressway, dutifully flips the guitar and gives a sheepish grin. It seems safe to say that Modern Radio's upcoming 10th-anniversary shows at the Turf and Cedar won't feature surprise musical performances by Loftus and Mielech.
"I've been a lifelong music appreciator and fan," says Loftus. "That was the way to contribute, was helping artists out."
Mielech learned guitar in college but never played in a band—"which is kind of an anomaly for people who have started labels," he admits.
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It's true. From Merge (Superchunk) to Dischord (Ian MacKaye's projects) to Minneapolis's own Rhymesayers (Atmosphere), independent labels are often founded by a band in order to put out that band's music. But Loftus didn't grow up playing in bands, and so it wasn't until he became music director at St. John's University's radio station that he learned there was a real difference between the major and indie labels.
"That led to me finding out that bands on major labels were really not treated well," he says. "To me, that was sacrilege: The idea that there were people out there totally manipulating bands so that they can make money was terrible. If it wasn't for music, I might have become a different person that I don't know if I would like."
The music that inspired Loftus came from labels like Touch & Go and Rough Trade. "None of them were trying to force it down people's throats," he says. "It was just stuff that seemed urgent."
Through the radio station and booking shows, Loftus began to make connections. "The guys in the Misfires I'd known for years," he says. "They turned me on to a lot of music. Brian [Severns] from Misfires was playing with Knol [Tate] from Killsadie in the Hidden Chord, and I was interested in putting something out by Killsadie [and the Hidden Chord] so I had three records right away."
Since those humble beginnings, Modern Radio has, well, stayed more or less humble, more or less by design. Loftus and Mielech have worked with bands early in their careers that have gone on to bigger labels (Motion City Soundtrack, the Plastic Constellations, Selby Tigers) and with established artists on interesting projects (a split 7-inch with Deerhoof and Sicbay, Mirah's 7-inch) in addition to label mainstays like the STNNNG, Vampire Hands, the Danforths, and others. "I've never tried to seek out artists because it could sell x amount of records," says Loftus, but he resists the "boutique" distinction.
"I think that 'boutique label' relates to [having] a particular kind of sound," says Mielech. "I don't think we have a particular sound. We put out such a plethora of different kinds of music, so you can't say Modern Radio's a hardcore label or whatever."
Maybe it's because it's also more than a label. In the Twin Cities music community, Modern Radio is at least as well known for its message board as its bands. When he first launched it in 2001, Loftus saw the board as a place for people to get past the clique mentality of a local scene and build community. Since then, everything from bands (Gay Beast) to weekly baseball and basketball games have started up there, and an upcoming upgrade promises improved functionality, not that anything will completely erase Minnesota's frosty rep. "You go to shows," he says, "and it's Minnesota and everybody's a little standoffish and everybody thinks they're mad at you, but I think people from here are skeptical, and you know what? People from here were skeptical enough to not have voted for Reagan, so say what you want about Minnesota, but we're the only state that didn't vote for Reagan."
While its owners may be socially liberal, Modern Radio's success comes largely from fiscal responsibility. "You try to keep your expenses low because you have a greater mission in the end," says Loftus. "We have never, in the history of Modern Radio, paid for a mailer. Never. We don't want to give away all of our secrets, but here's an easy thing if you're running a label: Every college station and every publication gets tons of promos. It's like a) you can recycle, which is good, and b) those things are super-expensive. An LP mailer costs over a dollar."
"That's gold right there," Mielech affirms, laughing.
MODERN RADIO celebrates its 10-year anniversary with FT (The Shadow Government), Daughters of the Sun, the Chambermaids, and Double Bird on FRIDAY, JANUARY 22, at the TURF CLUB; and with the Plastic Constellations, Skoal Kodiak, STNNNG, and Vampire Hands on SATURDAY, JANUARY 23, at the CEDAR; info at modern-radio.com.